Jaguar puts pressure on Mercedes

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The result of the 23rd Trofeo Filippo Caracciolo at Monza had a familiar ring as the Mercedes team swept up the top two places, but third and fourth for Silk Cut Jaguar represented the team’s best performance for 18 months. Both XJR-11s were hampered by brake problems which should be cured by modifications in hand for the British round at Silverstone on May 20, and it may not be too long before mauve and white Jaguars are first to the chequered flag.

Dominant is still the word to use for the ‘Silver Arrows’ which topped the qualifying sessions with a second to spare on Friday and Saturday, but a first-corner fracas involving Jan Lammers’ Jaguar and Jochen Mass’ Mercedes injected a good deal of interest into the race.

Both drivers had to stage a comeback, Mass snatching second place from Brundle on the final lap, Lammers claiming fourth. Mauro Baldi and Jean-Louis Schlesser led from start to finish, and by Sunday night any hopes that rivals might have harboured about the reliability of the new Mercedes C11 were dashed. The advanced Bosch Motronic 1.8 engine management system has been difficult to tame, has caused some engine breakages, but neither car missed a beat during the Monza weekend. Anyone who wants to beat Peter Sauber’s team will have to do so with a superior performance.

On the basis of the first two World Sports-Prototype Championship rounds of the season, Silk Cut Jaguar is the most serious challenger. Nissan’s performances have been promising, but show how much work there is still to do, while Toyota made a bright start at Suzuka but endured a dreadful weekend in Italy, taking three wrecks back to base in Norfolk. Johnny Dumfries and Geoff Lees each had two major accidents, Aguri Suzuki a minor ‘off’, while new boy Roberto Ravaglia didn’t put much on his car.

At root, high fuel consumption is still Toyota’s main concern so the cars are run with minimal downforce; “you’ve only got to touch a kerb to be in trouble” says Lees. “When you see how much wing the Mercedes run, you can understand why they’re so fast through the corners”.

The Porches are not yet a spent force but Reinhold Joest’s A-team cars are the only ones to stand a realistic chance of winning the odd event, this now being virtually the works team with new cars powered by 3.2-litre engines, rather than the ‘standard kit’ 3-litre sixes used by the B-teams.

Having tested at Monza earlier in the month the Joest team was much more in harmony with the Michelin men. Bob Wollek and Frank Jelinski finished fifth, best of the rest, while Jonathan Palmer and Tiff Needell were rather unlucky to finish eighth in the identical sister car, after the engine cut out mysteriously and stranded the car for a lap.

The Spice 3 1/2-litre cars may well be a force to reckon with, but perhaps not at power circuits such as Silverstone and Spa. Wayne Taylor and Eric van der Poele, the Belgian F3000 driver who looked very confident in his first sports car race, took sixth place after a trouble-free run but were two laps adrift, and their belief that the turbo teams would slow their pace to conserve fuel was somewhat misplaced.

Clearly the Spices are among the quickest cars through the turns, along with the Mercedes, and the likes of Taylor, Bernard Jourdain and Fermin Velez (just recruited back to the works team, after a season with Chamberlain Engineering) were able to take the heart-stopping second Lesmo turn without lifting off the throttle.

The Porsche teams have punted the C2 class cars around like ping-pong balls in years gone by, treating them as first-formers, but now the roles are reversed. Velez’s name cropped up quite often as the man who was pushing the big boys around, overtaking in various unlikely places, but his tactics rebounded early in the race as he took Lees’ Toyota under braking for the first Lesmo then moved to the left to take his line . . . . unfortunately while his left rear wheel was level with Lees’ right front. A heavy collision sent the Toyota spinning along the guardrail, a certain retirement, while Velez lost five minutes having the rear body supports straightened up, in order to fit a new cover.

Crossed with silver

For much of qualifying the screens showed a sequential 1-2-3-4 number order; Baldi, Mass, Brundle, Lammers. Mercedes’ transfer from the old C9 model to the new C11 was seamless, an easy graduation that mocked the efforts of rival teams to lick new cars into shape.

On Friday afternoon Baldi claimed the provisional pole position with a time of 1 min 29.591 sec, but the Italian was far from happy. “I can feel that the engine is not so powerful as when we tested here a month ago” he complained, and engineer Walter Naeher confirmed that the 5-litre V8s were short of at least 50 bhp due to the poor quality of the fuel supplied (on a mandatory basis) by the organisers.

By that reckoning Baldi may have had 800 bhp at his disposal, or less, so his time makes an interesting comparison with the Group C qualifying record set by Riccardo Patrese in a Lancia, back in 1985. His LC2 was powered with a 1000 bhp ‘time bomb’ engine for qualifying, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the time stood for five years. Jaguar, Mercedes and Nissan all had equipment to analyse the fuel on the spot, and they agreed that it was a rock bottom specification with 97 octane and a low scale of additives

The Grand Prix teams generally reckon to go faster on Saturday afternoon, but in Group C the entrants are still fairly preoccupied with checking the fuel economy, and prefer to get the hot laps done with on Friday. Even so, Peter Sauber allowed Baldi to try again on Saturday to break into the 1 min 28 sec bracket, as he was sure he could, possibly thinking that Brundle or Lammers would make a swift bid when no-one was paying attention. Baldi’s final attempt netted a pole position of 1 min 29.165 sec (145.50 mph), just about a second quicker than Mass and some two seconds quicker than the Jaguars.

The Joest Porsche and Nissan teams shared the third and fourth rows of the grid, hanging on in the first division, while Toyota Team Tom’s and Spice Engineering are on the waiting list for the top group.

Mass’ double

As the pace car peeled off Baldi thundered ahead towards first chicane, 400 metres from the start line, and from the second row Lammers drew level with Mass. The two cars seemed rivetted together as they approached the braking area, the German strangely unaware of, or unimpressed by, Lammers’ reputation in such situations.

Still door to door, Mass turned left for the first part of the chicane forcing Lammers to put his Jaguar half across the kerb, then the Jaguar man forced back to the right in a vain attempt to take the second part. It was hopeless, of course, and the two cars spun in opposite directions as 30 pursuers braked, ducked and weaved to find a way between them. Some were amused when Mass booted the throttle and pirouetted on the spot, still facing the wrong way, and his temper was up when he finally joined the race 70 seconds behind Baldi. “I blame myself, for getting into a situation that was avoidable” he said later, but for the second race running his was the incident that brought the race to life. In fact his performance, coupled with that of young Karl Wendlinger, would have won the race with considerable ease had the collision not happened. Wendlinger, the 21-year-old Austrian recruit, actually took 40 seconds off world champion Jean-Louis Schlesser In the middle shift, an amazing feat which suggests that we’ll hear much more of him in the future.

Lammers stopped for a damage check and joined the race 90 seconds behind the leaders, incidentally with the tank topped up and that enabled him to lead the race, briefly, during the fuel stops on lap 30. It was the only lap that Baldi and Schlesser didn’t lead. At the front, Baldi pulled away from Brundle at around a second a lap, the Jaguar blistering its tyres and making life difficult for the driver who also had to cope with worsening brakes.

Having tried carbon and steel brakes during qualifying Brundle chose carbon, Lammers steel, but the choice didn’t make any great difference. Co-drivers Alain Ferte, with Brundle, and Andy Wallace had the more difficult task because they didn’t feel the brakes going off . . . . they were bad from the moment they took over!

In the opening stages the Nissans of Mark Blundell and Julian Bailey sandwiched Bob Wollek’s Joest Porsche, and Johnny Dumfries hung on to sixth position in the Toyota as long as his fuel readout allowed. Geoff Lees was an early retirement as Fermin Velez drove him heavily into the armco, and later on Dumfries experienced his second major accident of the weekend when a Porsche moved over and put him into the rails before the Parabolica turn, an impact that broke the Toyota’s carbon chassis in two. Mercifully there were no injuries, because both of Dumfries’ accidents looked serious.

Jonathan Palmer dropped two minutes, a lap and a half maybe, when the ignition cut on his Joest Porsche. “I was going along nicely behind Bob (Wollek) in fifth when the engine died . . . . just stopped.” After much churning on the starter it came back to life and ran beautifully for the rest of the afternoon, a mystery that the telemetric equipment confirmed but didn’t solve. It made the difference between fifth place and eighth, two world championship points lost for Palmer and Needell.

The ‘works’ and privately entered Spices of Chamberlain Engineering and GP Motorsport were extremely rapid, but haven’t yet achieved race-long reliability. Wayne Taylor and Eric van der Poele did stay out of trouble and were rewarded with a single championship point for sixth, but Velez and Bernard Jourdain dropped back after the collision with Lees.

Will Hoy went very quickly in David Prewitt’s GP Motorsport Spice but damaged the nose in gravel, and then felt the effects of a dropped valve. Reigning World C2 Champion Nick Adams ended his race in the gravel at the first corner, put off by the Mass-Lammers fracas, and Cor Euser again showed a great turn of speed in the other Chamberlain Engineering Spice, but unluckily ended his race when a rear tyre exploded.

Attention was turned to Wendlinger’s performance in the Mercedes, as he steadily reduced his deficit. He was 91 seconds behind Schlesser when he started and merely 51 seconds behind when he finished, and in that time he’d picked off both Nissans and Wollek’s Porsche, none of which was exactly sacrificed. At the end of the middle stint the number 2 Mercedes looked a possible threat to Brundle’s Jaguar, in which Ferte had coped valiantly with poor brakes. He’d held the gap to Schlesser at seven to eleven seconds for half of his short, 24 lap stint but then lost the rhythm and fell back to 20 seconds, leaving Brundle with an impossible task if he still thought of winning. The last half-hour was dominated by Mass’ inexorable advance on Brundle, while Lammers consolidated fourth place. We didn’t know how bad the Jaguars’ brakes were, nor how their fuel consumption was looking rather dodgy for a fast finish, but we could work out that Mass stood a chance of catching Brundle at the end of this very fast race.

Mass obliged with a new Group C record on his penultimate lap, at 1 min 33.426 sec, and suddenly he was crowding the Jaguar. Twice the XJR-11’s turbo engine faded on the final lap, which occupied a slow 1 min 50.2 sec, and Brundle had to settle for third place.

It may not have been all that Torn Walkinshaw wished for, but it was the team’s best result for 18 months, since Fuji in 1988 in fact when Brundle became the World Champion sports car driver, and marked the start of a new chapter for the team.

Wollek and Jelinski were safely fifth in spite of a 14 sec stop-go penalty for a ‘fast’ refuelling stop, but the Bailey/Acheson Nissan dropped to seventh after having a loose front wheel tightened. Then Blundell’s Nissan, shared with Gianfranco Brancatelli, rolled to a stop at the finish line after completing 79 laps; Blundell had just set the second fastest lap of the race at 1 min 34.471 sec when the fuel light came on, indicating three safe laps, but the engine cut out almost immediately. The result indicated a status quo for Mercedes, but also served notice on the Swiss-German team that real opposition is at hand. MLC

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